We all know that play is the key to children’s emotional and intellectual development. Messy play, in particular, is vital because of the way it helps youngsters understand how the world works, as well as use their senses and imagination. To reap the benefits, it’s also important that youngsters have the chance to be fully absorbed in the flow of their playtime. So in the moment, young children shouldn’t be worrying about how much ‘mess’ they are making – or wondering how they will clear it up afterwards.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show them, in developmentally appropriate ways, ‘how’ to tidy up after themselves too.

Done with an understanding of how they think, tidying up is a great opportunity to help them develop cognitive skills, like sorting, and organising. Furthermore, it helps them to practice impulse control, learn responsibility and about consequences. After all, if we do all the tidying up, a young child may keep believing that the mess they make somehow ‘magically’ disappears.

The first step is to take a look at ‘making a mess’; from a child’s point of view.

First look back at your own childhood and you may well find some of your favourite memories were times when you were totally absorbed in messy play on your own, whether it was making plasticine models or building a Lego village. I still clearly remember making tiny papier mâché bowls out of old newspaper for my toy animals at about the age of six – and painting them bright red when left to my own devices one afternoon in my bedroom. The paint went everywhere, but I can still remember how incredibly proud I felt of my creations!

So, if we ask a child to tidy up while they are in the flow of that play – and before they are ready – it can feel like we are bursting their play bubble.
That transition back to the real world, in which they are no longer in control, can feel like both a physical and mental wrench. Bear in mind too that that while we adults tend to value tidiness highly, children do not give it the same importance. When a child is absorbed in play, to them it makes perfect sense to have ALL their materials or playthings spread out around them – within easy reach, even if that looks chaotic to your adult eyes. Having everything to hand means a child can stretch their imaginations by using different play-things in new combinations together. If a child is really proud of what he has made, he will find it frustrating that you are asking him to stop his game – and even break up a game or project he has spent time on. It may feel like the little world he has created is about to be destroyed.

Still, despite how good messy play is for youngsters, it’s true that it’s also hard for adults not to feel a little overwhelmed by the trail of playthings children can leave in their wake. Who hasn’t felt more than a little weary at the sight of yet more blocks, play figures, crayons and play materials to pick up?

So how do we get children to help?

While they are still playing, give advance notice that they will have to wrap up soon with words like: “One more game with your dinosaurs and then we can put them to sleep in their normal house (the toy box) until tomorrow.”

However when the times comes, asking a child just ‘to tidy up’ is likely to feel overwhelming.

Even teenage children may not know where to start, so little children will definitely need a helping hand.

So make it clear it’s a job you will start together.

Be specific about how you want a child to help, by saying for example: “Please put all the dinosaurs into their box”. Give just one instruction at a time as young children won’t be able to process more. Acknowledge how a child is helping, so they know they will want to keep it up.

To make it feel more achievable – and make it fun – as well as helping to develop their sorting skills, you could also ask a child to pick up only one type of toy at a time. For example, ask them to pick up all the blue crayons, while you pick up the red ones. Young children are also caught up between following their own wants and wanting to help adults. So help a child see that tidying is in both your interests. By clearing space, explain they will have space to run around, they will be keeping toys safe from harm, and will know where to find them again tomorrow.

If they have a special project they are working on, ask if you’d like the bits kept safe for them to play with the next day. Schedule clean-up time at the same time every day – perhaps in the interval just before lunch – to get kids into the habit. Make it fun by putting on music and setting a time limit.

Most of all, it may help to let go of seeing the aftermath of play as ‘mess’ – which makes children feel like they have done something wrong. Instead, view ‘messiness’ from a different angle – as a sign that a child has explored the limits of his or her imagination to the full.

More child psychology you can use in more than 100 different situations with two-to-seven-year-olds can be found in “What’s my child thinking? Practical child psychology for modern parents”, published by DK.

About the author:

Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”. Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”.

An award-winning journalist, Tanith also writes on parenting for the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, in which she also serialises and promotes her books. She is also a regular presence on TV and radio programmes, including the NBC Today Show in the US and Radio Four Woman’s Hour and You and Yours.
Her full bio can be found on her website at www.cliomedia.co.uk and you can follow her on social media channels @tanithcarey.

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